By now everyone is familiar with the mythos of the Milwaukee Bucks and their player personnel. You could almost hear the hushed tones as NBA fans far and wide discussed Jason Kidd’s famous hyper-aggressive, trapping schemes. These were designed to create turnovers and unleash their multi-armed fast break Kraken headlined by Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Normally, playing this aggressively will be beaten by ball rotation, but the Bucks bet big on their long players protecting the weak side by creating an appendage bramble patch that wouldn’t allow the ball to get there quickly. It would be too dangerous to fire a release pass through the middle of the floor with the big Bucks wings ready to snare it, so teams would have to sky these cross-court passes high above their grasp. This not only affects accuracy, possibly sailing the ball out of bounds, but gives the helpers time to return to their shooters.
However, it hasn’t worked out that way this year.
In the clip above you can see the Bucks show a lot of help on Jaylen Brown, prepared to trap and seal on the baseline for a charge. The Bucks can send three men at Jaylen, and (due to Antetokounmpo’s outrageous length) there is minimal threat of Brown getting the ball to a popping Horford, and if he tried, Antetokounmpo would come away with the steal. The safest thing would be to get the ball back to Kyrie Irving up top to reset the offense, but Eric Bledsoe is shaded that way and might be able to jump a lob pass for a steal.
The open man on this trap is Jayson Tatum, who is just above the break on the weak side. However, making this pass directly would cause it to pass directly in front of Tony Snell, who could bat the ball and create another turnover. Well, supposedly anyway. Brown leaps in the air to get high enough to create height to make a direct pass that is still beyond the comfortable reach of Snell, who had the full load of Aron Baynes on him.
The league has used smart passing and scheming to understand what the Bucks are doing and largely neuter their attack. Between the start of the season and Jason Kidd’s firing on January 22nd, the Bucks were 24th in the league in defensive efficiency per NBA.com, ahead of only the Magic, Suns, Hawks, Kings, Bulls, and… Cavs. Since Joe Prunty took over and the defense got more conservative, the Buck have been much more respectable over that span, cracking the top half of the league at 15th.
One would think that ratcheting back the Bucks’ aggressiveness would come at the cost of the fast-break points that the Bucks so desperately need to survive and win games. When you have a defense as poor as theirs, any and all points become imperative. The Bucks were 8th in the league at offensive efficiency over the Kidd-helmed games of their season, and were also 8th in points off of turnovers and 7th in fast break scoring. However, since Prunty took control and inserted the more conservative defense, the Bucks have actually climbed the ‘points off turnovers’ category and ended up 2nd in the league.
So what gives?
Well, to put it simply, it turns out scheming aggressively isn’t as important as just… uh, well, just being long.
Even without the trapping and ball-hounding, the Bucks still have a unique set of wing personnel, headlined by The Greek Freak himself. Being that rangey can really jam up a team that moves the ball and struggles with isolation scoring like the Celtics, even in times when the Bucks might not necessarily get a hand on the ball.
Here is the back-breaking set during the Celtics’ most recent loss to the Bucks. The Bucks were playing their signature small lineup with Antetokounmpo at the 5. Monroe comes up to set an off-ball pick to spring Jayson Tatum to the corner. Antetokounmpo doesn’t switch, but instead is flat footed and showing on Horford. Tatum is open behind him, but the Greek is so long that Horford has to sky the pass almost comically high to get it over his Lovecraftian reach. This means the pass is too high, and even with Tatum’s own outrageous length, he is unable to get the ball without stepping out of bounds.
Here is another example of how length can be nice. On this play, Middleton makes a mistake and overhelps to the center of the floor in transition. Brown begins his drive and recognizes that he has a shooter in the corner. It’s an easy pass for a wide-open three point attempt; money in the bank! Unfortunately, Jaylen forgets that Mr. Fantastic is on the floor and Antetokounmpo reaches out and pokes the ball away, turning a defensive miscue into Bucks points going the other way.
There’s nothing aggressive about that. No wild, frenzied attacks on the ball or hyperactive energy expense to stay in position. It’s just a long-armed guy using his long arms to create turnovers.
Even something as simple as a pump fake become difficult when Antetokounmpo is involved, as the combination of size and speed changes the calculus of when a player can and can’t get a shot off. Get knocked out of rhythm by the looming presence of Giannis swallowing you up, and you make mistakes that don’t get credited to him. Watch a rattled Jayson Tatum beef his normally pristine footwork when Antetokounmpo lunges out on him.
It’s easy to chalk that up to “early season rookie goofs,” but here’s an example of Horford rushing the pump fake when he feels Antetokounmpo behind him.
The Bucks might not be as aggressive as they once were on defense, but it would be foolish to assume that makes them less dangerous in the turnover department. This is still a Bucks team that thrives in transition, and that’s important when this projects as a series where points will be hard to come by for both teams. It may seem prudent for the Celtics to move the ball as fast as they can in order to catch Milwaukee out of position, but the Celtics have to be aware of Milwaukee’s length and be sure to take care of the ball instead of threading the needle.
Otherwise, you risk feeding Giannis the steals he needs to set the Garden ablaze. The Kraken is lurking, and the Celtics have be careful not to wake him up.